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15 January 2004

A DWP report into the new disability benefits claims system shows that the Child Poverty Action Group's Welfare Rights Bulletin misled readers by claiming that 'the only possible cause for concern' was a one third drop in the number of appeals. In fact, the report states that a tribunal chair condemned the new claim pack because, even where appeals were lodged, 'it didn't give the appellant a fighting chance'. In addition, the report shows a small, but significant, reduction in the proportion of higher rate awards. It also raises concerns about a possible fall in the quality of decision making and indicates that additional evidence was collected in only around 6% more cases under the new short form system than under the old system. The new system has already been introduced for attendance allowance and is likely be introduced nationally for disability living allowance sometime in 2004.

Pro DWP spin
In April 2003 CPAG's Welfare Rights Bulletin, a publication subscribed to by virtually every agency giving advice and information about welfare benefits, published an article entitled "'Simpler, clearer and fairer': DLA claim reform'".

It enthusiastically covered DLA and AA trials then taking place in Bristol and Glasgow, which involved using much shortened claim packs. In the AA trials the 20 pages previously used to gather detailed information about the claimants supervision and attention needs were reduced to just 3 boxes for answers to so-called 'filter questions'. The huge reduction in evidence gathered from claimants was supposed to be made up for by decision makers telephoning claimants, carers and others in order to proactively gather the required evidence themselves.

Small blushes
At the time we published a response criticising the Bulletin's apparent unquestioning acceptance of DWP claims and calling for the information on which the author had based his article to be made public (See:CPAG publishes pro-DWP spin on DLA and AA trials. 6 May 2003). We also raised a number of possible concerns about the pilot claims system which had not been dealt with in the CPAG Bulletin article.

CPAG was sufficiently embarrassed that they issued a public denial on Rightsnet that the article had been written 'for, or on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions', though they declined to talk to Benefits and Work on record about the matter. Nor was the DWP prepared to release any information about the pilot to us (See: DWP information ban on DLA and AA trials. 8 May 2003). We subsequently contacted LibDem MP Steve Webb, who obtained an undertaking from Maria Eagle in a written parliamentary answer in July 2003 that the report on the AA pilot, which had been completed in March 2003, would be placed in the House of Commons library. In fact, this was not done until November 2003, after the DWP had, with almost no prior notice, introduced the shortened AA claim pack nationally (See: DLA and AA claimants gagged by DWP and abandoned by disability groups. 9 October 2003)

No fighting chance
In relation to appeals, the report confirmed that there had been a one third drop under the pilot system. The campaigning and independent CPAG Bulletin suggested this might be because 'claimants who have spoken directly to a decision maker may feel that their case has been given a proper hearing and are consequently less inclined to challenge decisions.' Oddly, this was remarkably close to the DWP's own conclusion that 'It is possible that the high incidence of telephone contact in the evidence gathering process provides customers with increased confidence that they have had the opportunity to state their case before the initial decision is made.'

What the CPAG Bulletin didn't go on to say was that the DWP had sought the opinion of just one tribunal chair after a hearing involving the new AA claim pack and her response was damning. According to the report:

'A presenting officer has attended only one test appeal and, after the hearing, asked the Chairman for an opinion on the new form. The response was that she didn't like it because it didn't give the appellant a fighting chance!'

Tribunal chairs are generally practising solicitors of at least six years standing. They are appointed by the Lord Chancellor and are not noted for their wildly left wing or irrationally pro-claimant prejudices. Most welfare rights workers would consider such strong criticism from a tribunal chair as a distinctly 'possible cause for concern'.

Higher rate awards fall
According to the report the number of awards of the higher rate of AA fell from 35.9% (3,160 awards) in October to December 2001 to 33.7% (3,142 awards) in the pilot period October to December 2002. In the same period the number of lower rate awards rose from 44.5% (3,917 awards) to 48.2% (4,500 awards). The overall financial effect from the DWP's point of view equates to less than £1,000 of extra expenditure over a full year. So, the change in award rates is not a cause for concern for the DWP.

However, a fall of 2.2% in higher rate awards actually represents around 800 older claimants a year in the Bristol DBC area receiving £18.90 a week less in benefits. That may not be a 'possible cause for concern' for people in well paid regular employment for national voluntary organisations - but it might be a major cause for concern for those older disabled people scraping by on state benefits.

More wrong decisions
One of the report's conclusions is that: 'There has been an improvement in the obtaining of appropriate evidence but a slight deterioration in the quality of outcome decisions'. The report goes on to say that: 'The information on the quality aspects is limited by the relatively low number of checks carried out and the figures are not statistically valid'. In other words, it appears that more wrong decisions are being made but we haven't taken the time to check very many.

Most prudent observers would suggest that a potential fall in the already low quality of AA and DLA decision making was a very real 'possible cause for concern'.

Inadequate evidence for decisions
The article in the CPAG Bulletin claimed that the new short form was only part of the new evaluation process:

'On the face of it AA claimants have very little scope for explaining their care or supervision needs on the shorter form. However, the claim form is only one aspect of the AA trial. The questions about care and supervision needs are only intended as filter questions to identify the type of need. This means there is less of an onus on claimants but an increased role for targeted further evidence. In particular decision makers, who previously had little or no direct contact with claimants, have been encouraged to telephone claimants directly to obtain a more complete picture of their needs.'

The figures from the report do not support this view of how the new system works. In October to December 2001, before the trials, when decision makers 'had little or no direct contact with claimants', they made 2,945 calls in respect of 8,799 new AA claims. In October to December 2002 they made 4,117 calls in respect of 9,333 new AA claims. This represents an increase of just 1,172 calls, or around one in eight claimants receiving one of the additional calls. At the same time, however, home visits by Examining Medical Practitioners - which the DWP has to pay for - were reduced by 257 (from 736 to 479). Factual reports from GPs - which the DWP has to pay for - were also reduced by 376 (from 2,527 to 2,151). So, with 633 fewer EMP and GP reports to offset against 1,172 additional calls being made, a picture emerges of just 539 - around one in eighteen - claimants having more evidence collected on them under the new system than under the old one. This suggests that a large number of claims are decided solely on the evidence provided in the short pack.

Reliance on just the information in the short forms is worrying enough in relation to AA, where 80% of new claims result in an award. If the same procedures are followed in relation to DLA however, where only around 50% of new claims are successful, it will be a very major concern indeed for disabled people. Even the CPAG Bulletin article admitted that 'A standardised shortened claim form is less suitable for DLA because it is a more complex benefit with a wider range of qualifying tests'. (An admission that, when written in April 2003, would not have gone against DWP policy, as they were then trying out an 'interactive' DLA form supposedly tailored to individual claimants needs, rather than just a brutally shortened form). Yet it is the extraordinary lack of hard questions and opposition from national campaigning organisations in relation to the AA short form that allowed the DWP to impose just such a standardised, shortened DLA claim form in south east England in September 2003.

Inadequate evidence from trials
The figures in the report are difficult to unravel. For example, the DWP look at the number of claims 'handled' during the periods involved, where each telephone call or request for further information represents a separate handling. In addition, astonishingly, no figures were kept on what percentage of claimants using the pilot forms received an award of the higher or lower rate. The only figures available relate to all awards over the period, including those made to claimants using the standard rather than the short form. A 'straw poll' by the pilot team suggests that 90% of claims were being made on the short form at the beginning of December 2002, but no accurate figures exist. Nor were any figures produced to show whether there had been, for example, an increase in the number of claimants with arthritis receiving awards but a decrease in the number of awards for mental health conditions. This all adds to a 'possible cause for concern' that nowhere near enough detailed research has been carried out to justify the introduction of the new system.

Free access to information
We don't know precisely what information the author of the CPAG Bulletin article had access to - the whole of the DWP report or only parts of it - or why he took the position he did. CPAG themselves have in the past declined to discuss the contents of the article or their editorial decisions with us. We also don't know, because no figures have been published, whether over time there may be positive aspects to the new forms - such as an increase in claims because they are easier to complete.

What we do know is that the claim in the CPAG Bulletin that the 'only possible cause for concern' was the fall in the number of appeals was clearly wrong: it is possible to be concerned about many other aspects of the new claims system.

We also know that the DWP are very enthusiastic about the new system, largely because it has 'business benefits in terms of streamlining and efficiency. In particular, the reductions in dispute activity are significant'. In other words: a great deal less time is spent reading evidence from claimants and large amounts of money are saved through paying for fewer GP reports, EMP reports and - most importantly - appeals.

In addition, we know that the DWP, for whatever reasons of their own, seem to prefer to provide information about changes to the disability benefits system to just a few organisations or individuals in the voluntary sector. We believe it would be preferable to make such information freely available to all disabled people, advisers and advocates. That includes those who cannot afford a £28 a year subscription to CPAG's Welfare Rights Bulletin or £60-95 for a place on one of the three-hour long CPAG seminars on 'Welfare reform - disability and incapacity benefits' (co-presented by the author of the Bulletin article).

We are, therefore, currently seeking guidance on whether it would be an actionable breach of copyright to publish the full report on the Benefits and Work website in order that readers can make up their own minds, at no cost to themselves, as to whether it contains any 'possible cause for concern' about the new system for claiming AA. A system whose 'business benefits' will also soon be inflicted on DLA claimants - seemingly without a murmur of protest from disability or campaigning organisations.